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Reaching for The Brass Ring

By Alexandra Levit

Low man on the totem pole? Grow your skill set to get that promotion sooner.

Let's be realistic. Most junior level jobs in Corporate America have a low glamour factor. When you're relatively new to the business world, you are required to pay your dues regardless of your education and there's a good chance your responsibilities have nothing to do with what the interviewer promised. I'm willing to bet that they're more administrative, less creative and less empowering. This situation can be frustrating, especially if you're used to accomplishing a lot in a short period of time.

You'll be much happier if you look at your time on the bottom rung as an opportunity instead of lamenting the tragic turn your once promising life has taken. Keep in mind what's really important to you and use your current position to acquire valuable skills and experience that will take where you want to go. The easiest way to do this is to set specific, reasonable and attainable goals that map to your long-term career strategy.

Author Harry Chambers defines goal setting as a positive statement proclaiming your expectations of growth and achievement. You want your goals to motivate rather than discourage you, so they shouldn't be too ambitious. Instead, make them just tough enough so that you'll stay involved, constantly putting forth effort and reaching for that brass ring. Devise meaningful career goals by considering the following:

* What you're going to do.
* Why you want to do it and how it furthers your big picture agenda.
* When you're going to do it.
* How you'll know when you've done it and how you'll measure your success.

For example, a few years ago, I set this goal for leveraging my present job responsibilities to further my long-term career strategy.

* Current role: Work with teleconferencing company to coordinate weekly conference calls between the New York and the UK offices.
* Big picture agenda: Serve as the lead on a global PR account team.
* Goal: Master protocol for conducting global account team status calls.
 - What I'm going to do: In addition to setting up the calls, ask the VP for permission to listen and take notes.
 - Why I want to do it: By observing how global team account management is done, I will be better equipped to do it myself in the future.
 - When I'm going to do it: Talk to VP on Monday, participate in calls starting next week.
 - How I'll measure my success: After I've listened to several calls, ask the VP if I can create an agenda for and give project status on an upcoming call.

Increase your commitment to your goals by writing them down. Then, sit down with your boss and ask for his feedback on the list. Do your personal goals align closely with your organizational goals, or the goals your boss has set for you? Are your boss's expectations practical given your level of experience and expertise? Are your own expectations reasonable? For example, does your boss concur with your goal to manage a client relationship self-sufficiently within six months, or does he feel that you'll require an additional year of mentoring before you'll be ready to take on that responsibility? Don't leave this initial sit down until you and your boss have agreed on your goals leading up to your first scheduled performance review. He will be impressed with your conscientiousness, and voila - you'll be on the path to that promotion months sooner than if you'd waited for the formal review process.

Types of goals vary depending on the job, but in my opinion, every twenty-something should aim to build a wide range of transferable skills (like communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving and organization) that will add value in any corporate job and are not likely to become obsolete. Use your time on the job and your company's resources to achieve goals related to transferable skills, even if such goals are not directly related to your daily job responsibilities. My colleague Joanne wanted to move from her position as a research coordinator to a sales representative and provided the following example:

* Skill: Communication
* Goal: Improve presentation skills.
 - What I'm going to do: Teach three internal training courses on MS Office
 - Why I want to do it: I want to practice speaking in front of a group so that when I move to a sales rep position next fall, I will be qualified to conduct client presentations without supervision.
 - When I'm going to do it: Over the course of one training semester (six months)
 - How I'll measure my success: I'll work with the training coordinator to compare my evaluation sheets from the first and third courses. I'll know that I was successful if my scores improve.

Even after you've learned the basics, practice honing existing skills and acquiring new ones. Professional development never stops if you want to stay marketable. Keep a running list of all of the job responsibilities you have and the projects you work on and create a portfolio of work samples. Learn all you can about your organization and your field. Since developments in the business world move at the speed of the Internet, spend a few minutes each day reading websites focused on your company and industry. Regardless of your position, keeping your finger on the pulse can only help you.

Independent of your manager's involvement, you should take the time to evaluate your goals and reflect on your progress every three to six months. Mark Swartz, a career columnist for the Toronto Star, recommends taking a regular inventory of what's working and what's not. Honestly ask yourself these questions:

* Are my current goals still valid?
* Have any new goals emerged?
* Are my priorities still in order?
* Have new priorities changed the emphasis of my efforts?
* Do my planning and daily activities support my goals?
* Am I on the right track to get where I want to go?

Finally, be positive. Focus on how far you've come instead of how far you have to go. Take time out to pat yourself on the back. Eat your favorite dessert, buy the better seats at the Yankees game - whatever - as long as it's a real treat. By acknowledging your progress toward reaching your goals and concentrating on how close you are to achieving them, you'll be more likely to go the distance.

Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She's the author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004; This excerpt was reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THEY DON'T TEACH CORPORATE IN COLLEGE 2004 Alexandra Levit. Published by Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. All rights reserved.

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